This is a book for the lover of stories of heists, con artists, forgers and masters of disguise.
The Big Book of Rogues and Villains offers the reader a diverse gallery of thieves, murderers and con-artists from the past 200 years of English-language literature. Editor Otto Penzler has collected more than 70 short stories and novellas to re-print here, giving each one a short but informative introduction. Each tale brings with it another scoundrel, so that The Big Book of Rogues and Villains ultimately becomes a catalogue of past bad guys (and a few bad ladies, too!) for the reader’s reference.
Penzler begins The Big Book of Rogues and Villains with a brief statement of purpose. He admits to being an avid genre fiction reader, one particularly taken by crime and detective novels. But while collected volumes of short stories about various of Anglophone literature’s most beloved detectives are fairly common, Penzler declares that he has never encountered a similar compendium of villains. So, in that spirit, he presents The Big Book of Rogues and Villains. He organized the book loosely, by country and era—the Victorians, the Edwardians, the Pulp Era and so on. This lets the reader focus in on a single epoch or vogue, but also to witness the continuities and disjunctures over time regarding how writers have fantasized about criminality and villainy. Every generation has pickpockets and murderers, for sure, but the details are always in flux.
The volume features many of the most notorious criminals and reprobates that have populated our stories, such as Dracula, Raffles and Dr. Fu Manchu. Penzler reprints works by several famous and celebrated authors, including Jack London, H.G. Wells, O. Henry and Robert Louis Stevenson. The inclusion of such widely known figures gives the book credibility and provides an avenue for less widely-read readers to enter into its otherwise intimidating 900 pages.
The real joy of The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, however, is Penzler’s dogged sleuthing deep in the archives of out-of-print literary magazines and dusty basements full of boxes of forgotten books to find mostly unknown stories and writers. A good example is Canadian art historian Newton MacTavish’s very short story about Six-Eye, a thief and murderer. There are dozens of these lesser known tales scattered throughout the book, which bring some necessary novelty just as the celebrity authors/villains provide comfort in their familiarity.
This is a book for the lover of stories of heists, con artists, forgers and masters of disguise. It is not quite noir; most of the tales included here are not so dark or serious. The Big Book of Rogues and Villains is more playful than bleak—though there is brutality to be found in it, surely—and has a tone and style more in line with the TV series “White Collar” or such classic films as Rififi and Le Cercle Rouge. For example, there is “The Adventure of ‘The Brain,’” which details how classic rogue Smiler Bunn ripped off both a roomful of rich suffragettes who mistakenly thought he was a genius who would win them the vote with his intimidating intellect and a huckster soothsayer in the same heist. It is good harmless fun. Penzler intended it as such; he designed the book for the genre reader to grab and get lost in for a story or two, delighting in the interplay between common tropes and each included selection’s unique features. The array of characters he presents is astounding and reveals the richness of Anglophone literature.